Kids Who Kill

In America, 12-year-old Jordan Brown stands accused of killing his soon-to-be stepmum. So, what drives an innocent child to murder their parents?
Thursday , 14 July 2011
Kids Who Kill
Kids who kill

Each day, thousands of mums stand at the school gates, waiting for their children to come running out of the doors. You can picture the scene, you might be one of the mum’s yourself; eagerly anticipating news of your little one’s day, watching them joyfully waggling arts and crafts in the air, grabbing their hands as you take them on to ballet lessons, football club or a friend’s for more playing time. And whilst most of these children are innocence personified, others, unbeknownst to everyone around them, are future ticking time bombs waiting to explode. And their proud mothers and fathers could well be the ones to bear the terrible consequences of their anger. For shockingly, in the US, around one child every single day kills a parent.

Known as parricide, these crimes account for around two per cent of the murders that take place in the States, yet it’s not just America that has fallen prey to it. “Obviously in the US we have higher incident rates, largely because of our gun laws, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening all over the world,” says LA lawyer, Paul Mones, who specialises in defending adolescent parricide offenders. “I’ve dealt with cases everywhere from England and France to South Africa and Kenya.”

Recent UK records show around 10 cases a year, while in Japan parricide accounts for up to seven per cent of homicides and only in January 2011, 15-year old Romanian Ionut Silviu Savin killed his adopted mother in a frenzied knife attack before calmly going to an internet café to play games online.

While there are no official figures released in the Middle East, that isn’t to say it isn’t occuring here also as, “it could take place anywhere,” says Mones. But what is perhaps more worrying is that it could happen to anyone. For more often than not these baby-faced killers, who are sometimes girls but in most cases are young white males aged under 18, have committed no previous crimes, nor shown any signs that they might be contemplating murder.

Reeling with shock
Right now, the case that is gripping America is that of 12-year-old Jordan Brown. Despite his cherubic appearance, he is said to have walked into his father’s bedroom in western Pennsylvania on 20 February 2009 and shot dead his dad’s pregnant fianceé and soon-to-be stepmum, Kenzie Houk whilst she slept. At the time, 26-year-old Kenzie was eight-and-a half months pregnant – her unborn son Christopher also died in the attack.

Last year, Pennsylvania judge Dominick Motto ruled that Jordan will be tried as an adult, which means that if convicted, he could become the youngest person in US history to be sentenced to life in prison without parole. On making his decision, Judge Motto said, “This was an execution-style killing of a defenceless pregnant young mother. A more horrific crime is difficult to imagine.”

Yet, after allegedly committing such a crime, Jordan is said to have calmly boarded his school bus ready for class at the Mohawk Elementary School. That level of callousness would be hard to understand in an adult, but in a child it is almost unfathomable. Kenzie’s two children, Jenessa and Adalynn, now face life without their mother and the rest of her family are still reeling with shock. Kenzie’s mother, Debbie, says, “I wake up in the middle of the night thinking I’m going to have an anxiety attack knowing that I’m never seeing her again. It hurts so much”.

What is truly frightening is that Jordan’s case is far from unique. In January this year, a 14-year-old boy from South Carolina shot dead his dad, great aunt and grandma and, in 2010, in Staten Island, New York, 14-year-old CJ Jones set light to the family home killing his 33-year-old mother and three of his siblings. He had also slit at least two of their throats before taking his own life in the same way. “You’d think only a monster could do this, not a little boy,” said family friend Chandra Franklin at the time.

So what could possibly drive a seemingly innocent child to kill? According to Mones, many – but not all – cases are due to the fact that the child has suffered abuse at home. “It’s a reactive thing,” he explains. “It’s a coping mechanism because they feel overwhelmed by the circumstances. They see this as an escape from the pressure they’re under or even an act of self-defence.” Other offenders are suffering from mental health problems. And then there are those who seem to kill without remorse, despite the fact that they come from stable, loving homes. These children are the ones who carry out cold-blooded murders for selfish gains, for example to inherit money or for reasons as simple as never having to ask to borrow the car again.

“In most of these instances you find that the kids have been overindulged, especially between the ages of two and five,” says Dr Kathleen Heide, a leading expert on parricide. “Their parents are loving people, good people, but they tend to have been lax about setting boundaries. It starts with letting them win small battles, such as having ice cream just before dinner or refusing to go to bed, and then it escalates into bigger things when they are teenagers, such as staying up late or mixing with the wrong people.

“These kids have no frustration tolerance or respect for authority so they can’t get things into perspective. Essentially, they kill to get their own way. This can be anything from dating a person their parents object to, to wanting to spend more time on the internet.”

It seems incredible that a child would even know how to carry out such crimes but for Kevin Browne, professor of Forensic Psychology and Child Health at the University of Nottingham, based in the UK, the answer is simple. “Some of it is natural instinct. For example, the recognition that a knife, gun or hammer is a weapon, but some of the premeditated aspects of the crime, like waiting for someone to go to sleep before attacking them, are copied from films.

“Research shows that 10-12 per cent of a person’s predisposition to violent behaviour is influenced by the media. Obviously for most people that wouldn’t be enough to murder someone, but for those already at a point where they are likely to act in such a way, then it normalises their behaviour.”

What makes these cases even more tragic is that in most instances the perpetrator has no real understanding of the enormity of their actions. Due to the severity of the crimes, most offenders are tried as adults (this varies from state to state, some states do it as young as 12 and 13) in order to receive lengthier sentences, but Mones feels this is unjust. “The killers always admit their crime, but I don’t think they really understand what they’ve done,” he says. “They lack the consequential thinking to grasp what the murder means. It takes a long time before they understand the repercussions of their actions.”

This theory certainly bears weight when you look at the testimonies of the children themselves. For example, Jacob Ind, who killed his mother and stepfather in 1992, when he was just 15 years old, has spoken since about how he had no real comprehension of what he had done.

“I didn’t really grasp the permanency of their deaths,” he says. “I definitely didn’t understand the gravity of what it means to kill somebody. I didn’t think they’d feel pain. I didn’t think that anybody else would be affected.”

Awareness and intervention
Each time a child kills a parent it makes headlines around the world, yet sadly we don’t seem to be learning any lessons from these murders. So, what can be done to stop them?

“Nowadays there’s more awareness and intervention when it comes to abuse, so hopefully over time that will put an end to most of the incidents of parricide,” says Dr Heide. “But the tricky ones to predict are those children who kill for selfish gains. It’s only in retrospect that we realise that the signs were there all along, but most of the parents chose to ignore them.”

But what signs should we be looking for? Research shows that these kids have been pushing boundaries and testing limits for a long time beforehand. They will show a lack of respect for authority and react badly when boundaries are put before them. Generally, they will act aggressively when they can’t or don’t get their own way.

“In these instances, parents need to seek help early, either from the authorities or mental health professionals,” says Dr Heide. “All that can be done is to encourage good parenting. Never has it been so important that children understand that there are rules and boundaries in life, because without this knowledge, the consequences can be tragic.”

Children and guns: what is the US law?
In the US, juveniles (this differs from state to state) can own rifles and shotguns but not handguns. Most states have a law called ‘gun enhancement’, which means that if a homicide is committed with a gun then the perpetrator has a mandatory minimum sentence to serve. This also applies to any juveniles being tried in an adult court.

Kids who kill

  • Last year Tylar Witt from Sacramento, California pleaded guilty of drugging her mother Joanne, 47, then stabbing her to death because she disapproved of Tylar’s boyfriend Steven Colver. She was 14 at the time of the murder.
  • In 2007, a 16-year-old boy who was apparently addicted to the internet stabbed his mother to death in Guangzhou, China after refusing to give him money to go to a cyber café.
  • In August last year, Joncarlo Patton, 15, from Pennsylvania is alleged to have slit his mother Cindy Iannarelli’s throat in Rajasthan, India because he was said to have been traumatised by his parent’s divorce.